Mesenteric artery ischemia
Mesenteric vascular disease; Ischemic colitis; Ischemic bowel - mesenteric; Dead bowel - mesenteric; Dead gut - mesenteric; Atherosclerosis - mesenteric artery; Hardening of the arteries - mesenteric artery
Mesenteric artery ischemia occurs when there is a narrowing or blockage of one or more of the three major arteries that supply the small and large intestines. These are called the mesenteric arteries.
The arteries that supply blood to the intestines run directly from the aorta. The aorta is the main artery from the heart.
Hardening of the arteries occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries. This is more common in smokers and in people with high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol.
This narrows the blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the intestines. Like every other part of the body, blood brings oxygen to the intestines. When the oxygen supply is slowed, symptoms may occur.
The blood supply to the intestines may be suddenly blocked by a blood clot (embolus). The clots most often come from the heart or aorta. These clots are more commonly seen in people with abnormal heart rhythm.
Blood is the fuel that keeps your body alive and working. It's your blood that transports the oxygen your cells need to survive. To get to your heart and out the rest of your body, blood needs a clear pathway through your arteries. But as you get older - and if you eat too many French fries and cheeseburgers - your arteries can harden and narrow, fill with plaque, leaving less room for blood to flow through. Let's talk today about atherosclerosis. Your arteries are like the pipes your water flows through to get to your bathroom sink. When the pipes are clear, water flows easily through them. But when minerals, rust, and other debris get stuck in the pipes, it clogs them up, leaving less room for water to flow through. That's why you get nothing more than a drip when you turn on your bathroom sink. In your arteries, clogs are caused by plaque. Plaque is a substance made up of fat and cholesterol, which are found in unhealthy foods like those French fries and also bacon. Because plaque is sticky, it collects on your artery walls and blocks the flow of blood. Sometimes a clump of plaque breaks off and floats away to a smaller blood vessel leading to your heart or brain. If it gets stuck in that vessel, you can have a heart attack or stroke. Or, the plaque can weaken an artery wall, which is called an aneurysm. If that aneurysm breaks open, you could have a very life-threatening bleeding. How can you tell if you have atherosclerosis? Well, that's the tricky part, because often atherosclerosis doesn't cause any symptoms until you've got a blocked artery. And by then, you could already be having a heart attack or stroke. So that you don't discover the problem too late, see your doctor for regular check-ups. Get your cholesterol screened by age 35 if you're a man, age 45 if you're a woman. Also have your blood pressure checked every 1 to 2 years before age 50, and then once a year after that. You may need to have your blood pressure checked even more often if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or you've already had a stroke. Although you can't reverse atherosclerosis once it starts, you can prevent it with some easy lifestyle changes. Eat a balanced diet that's high in heart-healthy fruits, vegetables, and fish. Exercise for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day. Stop smoking, cause that's really bad news for your arteries. If your cholesterol is high, ask your doctor whether you should take cholesterol-lowering medication. Lastly, you may also need to take aspirin or another blood-thinning drug to prevent clots from forming in your arteries.
Symptoms caused by gradual hardening of the mesenteric arteries include:
- Abdominal pain after eating
Symptoms of sudden (acute) mesenteric artery ischemia due to a traveling blood clot include:
- Sudden severe abdominal pain or bloating
Exams and Tests
When symptoms begin suddenly or become severe, blood tests may show increased white blood cell count and changes in the blood acid level. There may be bleeding in the GI tract.
A Doppler ultrasound or CT angiogram scan may show problems with the blood vessels and the intestine.
A mesenteric angiogram is a test that involves injecting a special dye into your bloodstream to highlight the arteries of the intestine. Then x-rays are taken of the area. This can show the location of the blockage in the artery.
When blood supply is blocked to a part of the heart muscle, the muscle will die. This is called a heart attack. A similar type of injury can occur to any part of the intestines.
When the blood supply is suddenly cut off by a blood clot, it is an emergency. Treatment can include medicines to dissolve the blood clots and open up the arteries.
If you have symptoms due to hardening of the mesenteric arteries, there are things you can do to control the problem:
- Stop smoking. Smoking narrows the arteries. This decreases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen and increases the risk of forming clots (thrombi and emboli).
- Make sure your blood pressure is under control.
- If you are overweight, reduce your weight.
- If your cholesterol is high, eat a low-cholesterol and low-fat diet.
- Monitor your blood sugar level if you have diabetes, and keep it under control.
Surgery may be done if the problem is severe.
- The blockage is removed and the arteries are reconnected to the aorta. A bypass around the blockage is another procedure. It is usually done with a plastic tube graft.
- Insertion of a stent. A stent may be used as an alternative to surgery to enlarge the blockage in the artery or to deliver medicine directly to the affected area. This is a new technique and it should only be done by experienced health care providers. The outcome is usually better with surgery.
- At times, a portion of your intestine will need to be removed.
The outlook for chronic mesenteric ischemia is good after a successful surgery. However, it is important to make lifestyle changes to prevent hardening of the arteries from getting worse.
People with hardening of the arteries that supply the intestines often have the same problems in blood vessels that supply the heart, brain, kidneys, or legs.
People with acute mesenteric ischemia often do poorly because parts of the intestine may die before surgery can be done. This can be fatal. However, with prompt diagnosis and treatment, acute mesenteric ischemia can be treated successfully.
Tissue death from lack of blood flow (infarction) in the intestines is the most serious complication of mesenteric artery ischemia. Surgery may be needed to remove the dead portion.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Severe abdominal pain
The following lifestyle changes can reduce your risk for narrowing of the arteries:
- Get regular exercise.
- Follow a healthy diet.
- Get heart rhythm problems treated.
- Keep your blood cholesterol and blood sugar under control.
- Quit smoking.
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Kahi CJ. Vascular diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 134.
Lo RC, Schermerhorn ML. Mesenteric arterial disease: epidemiology, pathophysiology, and clinical evaluation. In: Sidawy AN, Perler BA, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 131.
Last reviewed on: 1/14/2020
Reviewed by: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.